Gopi Krishna, Sandhya, Keshavrao Date, Bhagwan

In the days of V. Shantaram, it was an accepted premise to make a film with a strong moral. Those were the years when discipline was a good word, associated with leaders of people, and not with prudes and losers.

So it was possible for a film to preach while it entertained, and the box office clocked a hit. From that point of view, and not merely from that of the vintage cars and the stylised acting reminiscent of pre-talkie days, this film is certainly a period piece.

Also, although it takes up a debate India is still struggling with — the tussle between classical and populist art — it can no longer be depicted the way celebrated dancer-choreographer Gopi Krishna (who also acted as Girdhar) did it. Shantaram made the film when India had been independent only eight years. The explosion of pride in its cultural heritage was still on among the educated elite, but the pulls and pressures of making money were also getting mightier. It was not easy for dancers to make a living.

They were not only fighting the social stigma that had come to settle on performing artistes during — though not solely because of — centuries of colonial rule, but also struggling for patronage in a democracy that had left small-time kings and noble patrons without the cash to indulge their refined tastes.

The tirades of Mangal Maharaj (Keshavrao Date) as he shows off his son's dancing (“This is what you call classical dance!”) or talks of Roopkala's having “corrupted” his training and performing in an “ ashleel” (obscene) manner, remind us of the early days of bringing classical dance to the stage. Old-timers tell us that when Rukmini Devi Arundale began performing Bharatanatyam, which she learnt from the devadasis and nattuvanars, and became the first Brahmin woman to perform it, a lecture by her husband, the well known scholar, educationist and Theosophist George Sydney Arundale, was always included.

He spoke about the spiritual core of the traditional dances, the philosophy they delved into, and the symbolism involved. This was considered necessary for the audience to develop due respect for the art, since the idea of using the body as an instrument is hard to filter away from the sensual beauty of a woman!

Acrobatic feats

But Shantaram was working in commercial cinema, so his message was more heard than seen! What we get to see are some amazing acrobatic feats by the legendary Gopi Krishna, as he leaps and slides and lands with perfect poise in what could be called blended Kathak. But any die-hard classicist would be impressed by Girdhar's lightning chakkars while weaving through the pillars in Neela's dance hall, in a deft example of what today would be called site-specific choreography. And we have Sandhya as Neeladevi, looking as fetching in the “ bazaari” (commercial) sequences as later when she comes under the tutelage of Mangal Maharaj. Interestingly, the film's history records that Sandhya was not a trained dancer and had to practise for months with Gopi Krishna.

Though their performances here do merit the epithet filmi, despite what they are meant to represent, there are some telling lines that would ring a bell with any teacher of classical dance today.

Like when Neela realises what she has been missing in her training, accusing her first guru of teaching her “ bazaari nritya”, he defends himself with, “What could I do when I was given six months to train you and also prepare a troupe for group dance?”

In the music by Vasant Desai, the classicism is obvious, not only in the title song, sung by the great Ustad Amir Khan, but in the others too — evergreen hits by Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey.

The blending of Kathak kavits (rhythmically recited poems for dance) with song and percussion syllables made the dance sequences thoroughly enjoyable for a range of viewers.

Group choreography is another strong point. The group dance after the climactic Shiva-Parvati scene has a beautiful amalgam of elements. The boys dance with drums, reminiscent of Manipuri, and the girls cymbals, and then there is a portion with lighted lamps.

ANJANA RAJAN